2016 Update: I have redone this with a a new post “5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List” which I believe is a far better approach to light on the AT. This new gear list is both light and practical. It can be used by many AT hikers to increase both their enjoyment and miles covered per day.


 

2007 version – 2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail

Gossamer_Gear_Whisper

sub-5 pounds Full Skin Out Base Weight. That’s all of my pack and everything I am wearing. Overlooking the Shenandoah Valley

Detailed 2.4 lb Extreme Ultralight Gear List (pdf)
90+ mile Fall trip – AT in Shenandoah National Park – 3 days / 2 nights, Nighttime temps near 32 F with wind. One day/night of rain.

Some key gear for 4.8 pounds FSO-BW: Jacks R Better Stealth Quilt (worn in poncho mode), Oware Cattarp 1.5 (cuben fiber version), Trail Designs Caldera cook system, Gossamer Gear 2007 Lightrek Poles (supporting the Cattarp), Inov-8 F-Lite 300 shoes, Gossamer Gear Whisper pack (blue), Rain Shield O2 Rain Jacket (yellow behind pack), and Smartwool Microweight Shirt.

A Brief Summary of the Details

When I first thought of testing out a Sub-five-pound, Full Skin Out Base Weight (FSO-BW) gear kit I thought of early Fall in the Blue Ridge. To be a valid test, I’d need some good rain, some wind and cold nighttime temperatures. I’d need to watch the weather and be ready to quickly head out when the predicted forecast met these conditions. I’d also need to cover a lot of trail miles, at least 75 to 100 miles, to test out my gear. I chose the AT in the SNP because it is more mileage than I’d likely cover in three days and for its significance as a national trail. “AT trail miles” have become something of a national hiking standard.

My criteria for testing sub-five-pound FSO-BW*:

  • Hike 75 or more miles in 3 days
  • Must have solid rain
  • One night with temperatures below 40 deg F
    (possibly approaching 32 deg F)
  • Carry own shelter
  • Full rain gear
  • Cook food (There’s 3 oz or so to be saved here, and many who venture into pack weights this low will opt to go without cooking. I wanted to get under 5 pounds FSO-BW and still cook. It seemed a more elegant way to get there.)
  • When possible, gear should be readily available, and reasonable in cost (reasonable for making a Sub-five-pound FSO-BW).

* Using different criteria: Staying in huts and without cooking it would be possible to achieve a 1.9 pound base packweight (see gear list for more details) and under four pounds FSO-BW.

Using the above criteria it was harder to get down to Sub-five-pound FSO-BW than I had anticipated. I quickly realized that my primary gear focus was on keeping warm and dry. To do that and stay under weight FSO-BW, I threw out many of the Ten “Essentials” and gear numerous people would consider essential. For instance: compass, knife, [sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen]*, warm insulating jacket or vest, gloves, spare socks, long pants, TP, toothbrush/toothpaste, and no underwear. I even considered leaving my watch. On the trip I missed very little of this. The thing I wanted most was the down hood that mated with my JRB Stealth down quilt. (I would have traded my first aid kit and more for the hood.) I also missed dry camp socks at night.

* I had a good summer base tan, only my face and hands were exposed, the leaves were on the trees so the trail was mostly shaded.

Clothing and “gear carried” counts for a lot in FSO-BW. Usually, it is more than your BPW. To make sub 5 pounds, I selected the lightest garments I could get away with. Being a smaller person helps. Many times I went down a clothing size to reduce weight.

Key Gear

Jacks R Better Stealth Quilt

This was my most important piece of gear. The Stealth Quilt is a lighter, sewn-through version of the No Sniveler Quilt. At $200 for a sub-one-pound sleep system with 800 fill power down, it is an ultralight bargain. The Stealth Quilt has a slit in the middle so it can be worn as an insulting poncho. Like Francis Capon in his CDT Yoyo, this quilt was both my “sleeping bag” and my sole insulating garment (Francis used a warmer version). Jacks R Better offers a down hood that integrates with both the Stealth and No Sniveler.

The poncho/quilt system works quite well when you hike without stopping during the day. It eliminates about a pound to a half pound for an insulating garment like a down or synthetic high loft jacket. (In cold weather you hike fast enough to stay warm with a light wool shirt and a rain jacket.) In camp, you use the quilt briefly as a garment to stay warm while you cook and do chores morning and evening, otherwise you’re sleeping under it.

My 15 oz Stealth quilt had 2 inches of average loft (single layer), ½ inch over the manufacturer specified 1 ½ inches of loft. It is rated to +45 °F. The first night was in the low 50’s and I slept quite warm under the JRB Stealth Quilt and easily dried out clothes wet from hiking in the rain. The second night on the trip was around 30 F, or about 10 to 15 degrees below the quilt’s rating. Due to the Stealth’s generous loft (for sub 16 oz bag), I managed to stay warm enough to get reasonable sleep.

Note: One can use a conventional sleeping bag as an insulating garment. This involves wrapping the bag around your torso and neck and then covering it with an oversized shell jacket (e.g. a Rain Shield jacket a size larger than you normally wear) to hold it in place. It is the height of fall fashion and your buddies may laugh at you, but it works.

Gossamer Gear Whisper Uberlight Pack — overlooking the Shenandoah Valley

Gossamer Gear Whisper Uberlight Pack

At 3.8 oz and $60 the Whisper may be the best extreme ultralight deal on the market. I’ve used the Whisper since it was first introduced. In the beginning I had misgivings about the packs paper thin appearance but the pack is remarkably durable. I own two and both are doing fine with a many miles on them. For most UL and XUL trips the volume of the pack is about right. My only suggestion: I wish the pack had side pockets to store food and a water bottle, etc. in a more accessible location. (I hope that Gossamer Gear is developing a Whisper-based pack with side pockets.)

Oware Cuben Cattarp 1.5

This tarp, large enough for two-people in pinch, weighs 3.9 ounces! It uses a new lighter Cuben fabric. The large coverage has another weight savings. It allows a single hiker to use down bag without a bivy to protect it from rain that might blow under a smaller tarp. The Cuben Cattarp 1.5 while expensive for a tarp is still inexpensive compared to most UL tents. You get what you pay for. A tarp or shelter with the same coverage in Spinnaker fabric is almost double the weight. The Cattarp 1.5 measures 8.8 feet long x 7.1 feet wide at the front. It kept me dry with room to store gear and cook. I like the simplicity and ease of pitching a tarp.

Trail Designs Caldera and Beer Can Cookpot

Most times I don’t cook on solo trips. But I thought that it would be more elegant to get under 5 pounds FSO-BW and still cook. In addition, I was doing a lot of trail miles and it is a big psychological boost to have hot food at the end of a 30+ mile day with thousands of feet of climbing. I like my hot cuppa (tea) in the morning and a warm meal and hot chocolate at night. The light weight and high fuel efficiency of the Caldera system is hard to beat. I took two ounces of alcohol fuel for the trip. Weight of the whole system including fuel bottle (less fuel) was well under 3 ounces. Image on the left is a lightened version of the TD stove system that I used (lower capacity and no priming ring stove, stripped down parts) that is not currently in production.

Note: A version of this stove (right image), the Trail Designs Caldera Keg Cooking System is now available to the general public.

Gossamer Gear Lightrek 3 Trekking Poles

New for 2007 is a stronger and stiffer tapered shaft that adds no weight to the poles. These are strong enough for anything trail hiking can dish out. They are also excellent tarp supports. At 2.4 ounces they are about ½ the weight of most aluminum and carbon trekking poles yet cost no more than many high quality poles. Another UL/XUL bargain.

Note: Some will argue to skip the poles and just string the tarp between trees or use sticks for shelter support. I believe, like many long distance hikers, that trekking poles increase hiking efficiency. While I could have reduced my FSO-BWweight by leaving the poles, I believe it would have also reduced my daily mileage. The poles had two other significant advantages on the trip. (1) They clearly prevented me from slipping and falling when I hiked at night in pouring rain and whiteout conditions. (2) They were a godsend for a quick setup of my tarp in the rain that night. I was not in the mood, nor did I have the time, to ferret about in the dark for the right sticks to erect my shelter. I wanted to be under the tarp, in my warm quilt, and cooking dinner.

Inov-8 F-Lite 300 Shoes and Smartwool Adrenaline Socks

Shoe weight matters. Even a conventional lightweight trail runner is too heavy for a sub 5 pound FSO-BW. The difficulty is finding a very light shoe that provides enough comfort and support to hike 30+ miles a day with no foot problems. The Inov-8 F-Lite 300’s are just over 10 ounces per shoe, provide excellent cushion (3 arrow mid-sole), and are easy on the feet. This summer alone, I’ve backpacked hundreds of miles in the magic combination of Inov-8 F-Lite 300 Shoes and Smartwool Adrenaline socks with no problems. This trip was no different. After 90+ miles in three days I had no blisters or serious foot discomfort.

Gossamer Gear Thinlight Sleeping Pad

Probably the highest R value (insulating) pad for its weight, the Thinlight is surprisingly comfortable for the portion of your body it supports. The Thinlight does take up a bit of pack volume. In this case, that was a good thing as my Whisper pack was a bit over-volume for the small amount of gear I carried. I used a 3/8 inch thick pad trimmed to approximately 30 inches long and 16 to 12 inches wide.

Gossamer Gear Spinn Chapps

These were a new piece of gear for me. I was surprised at how well they worked. I have always taken GoLite Reed pants when there’s a good chance of rain. On this trip, I had on and off rain starting about noon on the first day and hard rain from late afternoon to when I stopped hiking around 10 PM. The rain was fairly warm (60’s), with dreadfully high humidity and whiteout conditions for most of the evening. The Spinn Chapps kept my legs just damp and I easily dried out under my quilt that night.

Rain Shield O2 Rain Jacket

I hadn’t used this jacket for a while but it was perfect for the trip. It is less than 5 ounces. The Propore fabric is highly breathable—almost as breathable as eVENT with the same flat moisture curve of a true microporous membrane (as opposed PU based technology including Gore-Tex). Breathability mattered since the Jacket would also be my windshirt. In a day of hiking in the rain (see Spinn Chapps) I arrived at camp just damp and I easily dried out under my quilt that night. The next two days had cold mornings (near freezing) and evenings and I used the Jacket as windshirt over my wool baselayer to stay warm when I hiked. I also used the Rain Shield Jacket as a pillow by stuffing it into its hood. It was my only bulky item left to make a pillow.

Smartwool Microweight Shirt

Initially I considered taking a 3 oz GoLite C-Thru T-shirt. But with no insulating garment and no long pants, my shirt would be my sole warm piece of clothing when I hiked. From numerous years of experience with Smartwool shirts I know that in combination with a shell (in this case the Rain Shield Jacket) and a fleece balaclava, I can stay warm hiking down to the freezing (or even upper 20’s F if I keep moving fast).

Light shelter: We weathered two days of rain and wind, completely exposed at over 11K. Our Gossamer Gear Spinn Twinn tarp kept us dry at just over 4 ounces per person.

A 15 lb pack (with food & fuel) for 7 days in the High Sierra

It’s been six years since Colin dropped 30 pounds from his pack. Time to drop some more pack-weight! Once again the brothers and their sons ventured into the Sierras with even lighter packs. We headed into the Southern Sierras. Our plan was to:

  1. Climb from 5K to 11K the first day
  2. Spend the rest of the trip traveling mostly off-trail in areas 11 to 12+K, and
  3. Fish remote areas, concentrating on finding Golden Trout and native Rainbow Trout
  4. And of course, drop some more pack weight!

A Brief Summary of the Details (with pictures below)

Detailed gear 4.7 pound backpacking gear list for 2007 Sierra Trip (PDF file)

While we did not make the huge weight savings of our 2001 trip, we still shaved another 10 pounds from our 2001 packs weights. This brings the total weight savings vs. our 1999 trip to over 40 pounds. Our packs were 75% lighter than in 1999!

Lake

A Brief Summary of the Details (with pictures below)

It’s been six years since Colin dropped 30 pounds from his pack. Once again the brothers and their sons ventured into the Sierras—this time with even lighter packs. We headed into the Southern Sierras. Our plan was to:

  1. Climb from 5K to 11K the first day
  2. Spend the rest of the trip traveling mostly off-trail in areas 11 to 12+K, and
  3. Fish remote areas, concentrating on finding Golden Trout and native Rainbow Trout
  4. And of course, drop some more pack weight!
Kevin Hiking

The trip went without a hitch and all equipment performed well even with below freezing temps and a fluke cold front with significant amounts of precipitation and wind.

A Brief Text Summary of What Changed

Savings vs. 1999
Total Pack Total Gear Food & Food storage
1999 55
2001 25 30 23.5 6.5
2007 15 40 29.2 10.8
10 lb Saved 2007 vs. 2001

While we did not make the huge weight savings of our 2001 trip, still we shaved another 10 pounds from our 2001 packs weights. This brings the total weight savings vs. our 1999 trip to over 40 pounds. Our packs were 75% lighter than in 1999!

Food: Like the reduction from 1999 to 2001, our greatest single weight savings (over 4 pounds) was from food and food storage. Our food “savings” came from taking fewer days to travel a longer trip distance over harder terrain. That is we took fewer days food. This reduction in trip days is due to:

    • Both sons are older and in better shape—gaining adult strength and endurance they can hike faster and longer each day.
    • The fathers can still hold their own.
    • With nearly 50% lighter packs vs. 2001 we all could travel faster and farther each day (but still have plenty of time for fun, side trips and fishing for golden trout.)

Golden Trout

Food Storage/Bear Cans: We weren’t in an area requiring bear canisters but we were close to area that did require them. We considered each taking an 8 oz Ursack (without aluminum liner) for our food, but we decided to share an ultralight food hanging system for less than 2 ounces per person. We camped well away from trails and popular areas that bears might habituate. We were fastidious about our cooking and washing up habits. We made excellent food hangs, slept next to our food and were prepared to defend it from Bears.
Father Son

Packs: Colin and I used low volume, hipbeltless packs with a minimum of features. With strong but light, high tech fabric they are more than durable enough for off trail travel and light mountaineering. On the right is my 10-ounce, home made backapck with durable X-Pac fabric.
Sleeping

Sleeping: Average sleeping bag weight went from 1.75 lb to 1.1 lb using very light hoodless down sleeping bags. Some savings came from using 1 oz Polycryo ground cloths. We slept warm enough in below freezing temps.
Shelter

Shelter: We shared a 9 ounce Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn tarp. This two-person spinnaker cloth tarp is less than half the weight of our old tarp with heavier silnylon fabric. We weathered a couple of days of high winds and sustained rain when camping exposed at over 11K.

Wx

And this rolling in, is is the ugly weather system that sat on us for two days. Again, no problems under a tarp.

Clothing

Clothing: We halved the weight of our rainwear and insulating garments by using new lighter technology clothing (a 5 oz vest each was the only warm clothing we brought). Much of this saving comes from substantially lighter fabrics. We added 1.5 oz rain chaps.Caldera

Stove/Cooking: We switched to an integrated alcohol stove/pot/cooking system from Trail Designs and Antigravity Gear. This system is lighter than a canister stove. More significant, alcohol stoves are more environmentally conscious than fuel canisters. The fuel efficiency of the Trail Designs Caldera system contributed to a weight reduction in fuel carried for the trip.

The Rest (not included above): A number of small things add up. We saved around 2 pounds vs. 2001 by taking fewer things and lighter things. It pays to look at the small details.

View

Trout

Kevin 2

Swim

Kevin

Fishing

K & S

Hiking

Weather

KS Tarp

The Crew

You can do amazing things with only 4.2 pounds of gear! Through coastal rain forest, montane forest, sub-alpine forest, alpine meadows and finally the rock and ice of Mt Olympus. We bivied in the snow in +45 bags.

Link: 4.2 pound Olympics Gear List (PDF)

We started our “backpacking” trip with no intention of climbing, but the snow was nice, the day beautiful and stuff happens. So,

Unplanned, we traversed Blue Glacier and climbed a significant portion of the mountain. We did it in trail running shoes and trekking poles, much to the dismay of fully equipped and roped climbing parties with climbing boots, crampons, and ice axes. At some point the slopes got steep enough and the exposure significant enough that it was foolish to continue in trail runners. Well, maybe that point was a bit earlier :)

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Colin Hiking across Blue Glacier towards Mt Olymp. We made it to the top of Snow Dome with only 4.2 pounds of gear.

 

A quick meal in a beautiful alpine setting. . .

Rain Forest – Trip Start

The first 12+ miles are in temperate coastal rain forest on well groomed trails

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Cool and shady – natural air conditioning.

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Rain forest – full of pine trees, deciduous trees, ferns and amazing mosses

 

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The mighty Hoh River

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The end of the rain forest….

Montane Forest

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Around two thousand feet things begin to change a bit . . .

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Huge snowfalls caused many avalanches and blow-downs. We spent a bunch of time climbing over and around downed trees and washed out trails. This is the definition of a completely destroyed shelter

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Our first view of the Olympic summits. Things are looking better . . .

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A washed out avalanche gully and steep snowfield

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Scree from hell!

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Our toasty warm camp for the night. Guess there is a reason they call it Glacier Camp . . .

Mount Olympus

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Looking across Blue Glacier up at summit block of Mount Olympus

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Now exactly where does the route go?

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Across Blue Glacier and approaching the base of Mt Olympus

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A rest with some spectacular scenery. And approaching the top of Snow Dome!

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Taking the fastest way down…

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We briefly stopped on the lateral moraine on our way back to camp and were visited by mountain goat (non-native)

Down to the Canyons of Utah – Another year of the spiritual spaces and beauty of the canyons and mesa.

Photographs (except as noted) taken by Alan with an Olympus E-30 digital SLR (info on cameras) and Zuiko 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens. More on lightweight photograpy…

Backpacking Photography Gear Lists

The Trip in Brief


Dawn on a ledge 600 feet above the Escalante. Our last campsite.


Cottonwoods glowing in early morning light.

A wash in late afternoon sun.

Finally working our way to the the mid-day shade of a deep Escalante canyon.

 

Trip Start – detailed report

Our trip began with the most exciting 4-wheeling either of us has ever done. Apparently, Kane County is not interested in grading roads to trail heads.


We arrived at trailhead at an earlybird 3:00pm (note low sun) and jumped in.

Starting off always requires a walk “into nowhere”. Somewhere in this vast expanse of slickrock we needed to drop into a deep canyon at a very specific place.

We’ve located the right spot and are preparing to downclimb into the canyon.

Into a sunlit wash that feeds into the Escalante River

We walked for about five hours before dropping our stuff at this arch campsite surrounded with fragrant sage.

As we approach the Escalante, the canyon walls get higher and shade increases


Al got to see her first real Indian ruins, a granary. How they got up there, is anybody’s guess.

Finally, walking down the canyon of the Escalante with its orange-red mid-day light

With river levels at record lows (snow pack 40% of normal) crossing the Escalante was not difficult. We crossed or waded it often to get better footing and faster hiking on the benches on either side of the river. Frequent crossings left our feet wet all day. The next morning, we again got to put on our wet shoes.


It seemed every bend was an opportunity for a new photograph.

We entered a side canyon and headed for the rim. As we climbed past the Kayenta, we passed
this detached pillar of Navajo sandstone.

In early evening, we climbed up a striated sandstone ramp past old Indian caves.

Our first view. The gorge of the Escalante is below (behind the green bushes, not seen in this photo) and the white Navajo domes of Circle Cliffs in the distance. Al is standing below the arrow in the next picture


A breathtaking perch

Nearly 1,000 feet above the Escalante, a superb view


Alan climbed a few dicey slabs to get a bit higher. A Navajo dome at the top of our world.

A close-up of the flowers in the lower right corner of the previous picture.

We climbed back down to a dream campsite at a spring-fed desert oasis. A waterfall sits right next to our sleeping bags. We slept to the frogs singing (croaking) to us all night… ALL NIGHT.


Sleeping-bag-view the next morning.

Moving down the Escalante again. This tower marks an abandoned meander where the Escalante used to run.

We did more bouldering up clogged streambeds and bushwhacking thru willows and tamarisk than we wanted.

Spring pools not shown on any map….a surprising find given the severe drought.

A jagged wingate tower above the pools.

On our last night, we climbed 600 feet above the Escalante River to camp on this ledge.


A Long-nosed Leopard Lizard kept us company on the ledge.


Sunset view from our camp.

A bit later in the evening — the other direction.

And a stunning dawn view from our campsite the next morning.

After taking photos. We left camp and walked along ledges on the canyon wall (described as “the finest ledge walk in the Escalante”). After we were over the canyon rim it was a very long march without stopping through sand and Navajo domes. Difficult overland navigation and blazing desert sun. We were though all 4 L of water each by the time we reached the car at 3:00 pm. Zero food and zero water after 7 days is excellent planning on our part.

Parting Shot

Trail head and our car which blessedly has a spare gallon of water in the back.

 

A 100 mile rafting and backpacking trip from the headwaters of the Talkeetna River to the town of Talkeetna via the Talkeetna and Susitna Rivers.

Route: Bush plane drop at the headwaters of the Talkeetna River. Float Talkeetna R to Prairie Creek. Heinous bushwack out of the Talkeetna River and cross the plateau to the Susitna River. Another challenging bushwack down to Gold Creek on the Susitna. Then float the Susitna to the Town of Talkeetna (with a short flag train ride into town—just for the novelty of it!).


A detailed gear list for Packrafting in Alaska. [PDF file]

The Trip in Brief

We started our trip by catching a Bear Mountain Air bush plane from Anchorage’s Lake Hood Airport. Bad wx made for a dicey plane ride in. Our 8:00 AM takeoff was delayed until almost noon. We had another delay mid-flight when we had to land on a river gravel bar in the Talkeetnas–had to wait for wx to clear to make it over the pass to the Upper Talkeetna River. Then had to fly high and dodge through cloud holes landing around 4:00pm. Whew! Thank you Joe of Bear Mountain Air for some excellent flying!

Safely landed on a gravel bar on the upper Talkeetna River. Our 1960s era Cessna 185. A wonderful plane! Skillfully piloted through low visibility conditions by Joe Houston of Bear Mountain Air.

Talkeetna R was high and fast but doable if you paid constant attention. Ripping along! Made 6-7 mph with current. No problems except that Alison could not hold her line at one point. Ended up going through a nasty class 3 wave train on a long, steep ladder chute. Fortunately, she kept her boat straight with a strong forward stoke and did not swim :-) We had intermittent rain both river days.

View of the Talkeetna River at the mouth of Prarie Creek and near the start of our bushwhack to the plateau between the Talkeetna and Susitna Rivers.

We had a stupendous hailstorm our second day on the river and Alan had to hack out a camp site using his 1 oz. pocket knife to make enough room for our tent. It was a real challenge to anchor the tent in the rubble and rocks of the gravel bar.

Our bushwhack out of Talkeetna R to tundra was as long and heinous as I remembered from my 2010 trip. Almost 5 miles of brush with significant elevation gain (and loss due to numerous steep gullies to be crossed). Even with an excellent and direct route and following some good game trails it took us all day to reach a nice lake in the tundra. Wind was howling and we were lucky to find a semi-sheltered, almost flat tent site in moderate tussocks. It started to rain in earnest around 6:00 PM.

Weather was a challenge along the plateau. Temperatures in the 30’s & 40’s. 100% rain without remission white-out conditions much of the time. Torrential rain at night had the tent leaking in numerous places (We really need to seal some ridgeline seams!). Constant headwinds. Hard to find anywhere to safely pitch the tent. Ground, tussocks and bogs super saturated with 40 degree water. Our feet were constantly squishing in and out of bogs, sponga and pools of near freezing water. Alan’s feet got so cold they hurt for days after the trip. Pretty much some of the worst hiking weather days either of us can recall. Wx on Alison’s birthday, 7/4, was one of the those days that will go down in history as wanting to forget!

Alison loses the weather lottery on her birthday. With constant rain, wind, white-out and temperatures in the 30s and 40s, it was no picnic.

The rest of the trip had milder wx with intermittent rain. Float down the Susitna was very fast & fun. The river was high and ripping along! We made around 7 mph. Just for the novelty, we flagged down the train rode it the last 7 miles into town–one of the last flag trains in the US. Great fun!

Town of Talkeetna super nice and fun. Great restaurants and amenities. We had a superb day of King Salmon Fishing! According to our guide, the best day all season. Alison and Alan caught 9 king salmon between us. They averaged near 30 pounds with the largest near 50 lb! Picures of our big fish!

Detailed Report and Photos

Our first morning and one of the few sunny moments (abeit partial) on the trip. Looking at the high, silt laden, and swiftly moving Talkeetna River.

Starting a fire to warm up and dry out. Always a challenge to make a fire with wet wood!

Packrafts safely secured near camp. (There is always a potetnial for rafts to be blown away or even float away if not secured.)

Ready to load the rafts for the final section of River before packing them up and hiking to the plateau to commence the foot portion of the trip.

A view from our bushwack (and not to the tundra yet—groan! We started bushwacking in the morning somewhere near the yellow arrow. Our bushwhack out of Talkeetna R to tundra was as long and heinous as Alan remembered from his 2010 trip. Almost 5 miles of brush with significant elevation gain (and loss due to numerous steep gullies to be crossed). Even with an excellent and direct route and following some good game trails it took us all day to reach a nice lake in the tundra.

Finally in the Tundra! And our beautiful campsite.

Wind was howling and we were lucky to find a semi-sheltered, almost flat tent site in moderate tussocks.
We had a blessed hour to dry everything out before the rain moved in.

It started to rain in earnest around 6:00 PM. But we had some wonderful views of light and stormclouds before the rain.


Alison’s birthday morning. Temperatures were in the 30s and white-out condtions starting to creep in.

A period of better weather on Alison’s birthday. Local white-out has lifted and we can actually see across the valley. Somewhere in the distance is the pass we came over earlier in the day.

Morning mist day 5

We constantly encountered small groups of caribou on the plateau.

As we began to descend from the high plateu to the Susitna River, the weather begain to improve. We are fairly sure that the high plateau created its own static and horrible weather amplfying lower elevation weather by 3x.

Bushwhacking through alder on the steep slope from the escarpement down to the Susitna River. Yes, we did have to climb on some lower alder branches to get through some areas!

Last night’s camp on the Susitna River. And a brief and welcome moment of sunshine at a stunning location.

Finally some nice weather a day after her birthday. Alison relaxes in some mild weather and late evening light.

By the next morning we were back to overcast, rain and mist. Alison sets off on our last leg down the Susitna to the town of Talkeetna, AK.

Alison’s raft is just a blip on the huge Susitna. It is the 15th largest river the the US!

We stopped at the ghost town of Curry, Alaska. Curry was a significant staging point for the constrution of the Alaska Railway. The major hotel burned down in 1957. It was not rebuilt and almost all traces of the once bustling town are gone.

One of the last flag stop trains in the US! The Hurricane approaches: this “train has delivered Alaska locals to their remote cabins since 1923. On this wilderness run, get off the train anywhere along the 55-mile stretch: hike, fish, or journey to a remote cabin. When you are ready to return to civilization, you can stop the train on its return with the wave of a flag.”

Using a MLD MoPacka (AKA “the thing) on the end of paddle, Alan flags down the Hurricane train. Alison, always the transit geek, was super excited to ride the last few miles into the town of Talkeetna.

 

We had a superb day of King Salmon Fishing! According to our guide, the best day all season. Alison and Alan caught 9 king salmon between us. They averaged near 30 pounds with the largest near 50 lb!

BIG FISH. Happy face.

After seven days in Alaska with now views, Alison finally sees Denali from the front porch of our cabin..

A double rainbow while we ate dinner at the local pizza joint.

A bus ride back to Anchorage. Transit geek suitably happy. We did not rent a car on this trip. Float plane, jet boat, packraft, foot and train but no car!

Parting Shot

Alison contemplates Alaska at a brief stop in the middle of the massive Susitna River.

ce_shepherd_big

Colin and Emma with their killer huge packs on a high alpine route.

The Start Of My Interest In Lightweight Backpacking

Killer heavyweight equipment list. What not to take! A detailed Table of Weight Savings from 1999 and 2001.
Discussion of weight savings between 1999 (heavy) and 2001 (ultralight) trips
Discussion of weight savings of 2007 trip vs. previous trips (1999 & 2001)

Killer Packs

Good planning can make or break a backpacking trip, especially with kids and heavy packs. I found this out the hard way when I took my kids on their first extended trip to the high Sierra. Our experiences sparked my interest in ultralight backpacking, especially since our industry-standard equipment was much too heavy for anyone, but in particular the kids, to carry over long distances. Colin and I started out the trip with 55+ pound packs.

We saw a lot of great scenery and camped in beautiful places, but it’s harder to enjoy the astonishing beauty of the high Sierra when you ache all over. Nonetheless, Colin and Emma and I would do the same trip again—but not with the same ten tons of gear. We didn’t get into camp until just before sunset many days. And each day we spent more than double the hiking time I had anticipated. The additional hours on the trail meant that my whole body, feet included, had to support a 55 pound pack for much too long. Just standing up with that weight was exhausting; but what was hard for me was, at times, misery for my kids. Never again!

The Trip

Our loads were just too heavy. And I, the eternal optimist when it comes to getting my family and friends into the great out-of-doors, overestimated the kids strength to some degree and underestimated how long it would take them to hike the distance I had planned. We were out for eight days without re-supply and covered 45 to 50 miles. Over half of this was challenging cross-country, with only one layover day (not surprisingly, the kids favorite part of the trip). Colin and Emma would have enjoyed the trip a lot more if I had known then what I know now about ultralight gear and if I adjusted our schedule to their real hiking ability rather than my sanguine estimate of what they could do. Obviously, if you halve your pack weight, most everything about backpacking becomes easier. Next time it’s ultralight for us!

But we made it there and back. And the kids didn’t kill me, although they’ve promised to bludgeon me if I plan any more hikes with “4 to 5 mile easy days” of off trail hiking. They are old enough to figure out that “easy” in dad lingo means “you’ll survive.”

Colin and Emma (then sixteen and twelve) were model backpackers, getting up at first light each day to help cook breakfast and then break camp. Every night they helped to unpack and set up again. I didn’t need to ask them to help. Mostly, they figured out what needed to be done and just did it, without bickering or grumbling. Even on long and hard days, they never gave up and complained very little.

Day 7 (see photos) is a good example of a hard day. En route to Crown Lake, we’d already been over one steep pass and a difficult boulder field descent. We were all tired. Unfortunately, our planned campsite was already occupied by a tent city of yahoos, breaking every camping regulation you can think of. A shock from the off trail solitude of previous days. Laundry hung from lines. Tents pitched on the waters edge at every flat site. People everywhere. Short of hoping a posse of pack-ripping, tent-shredding, cooler-chomping black bears would descend upon them, there was nothing we could do. Discouraged, we opted to hike the extra distance to Peeler Lake, even though it was late in the day. The uphill climb to Peeler Lake was much steeper and took much longer than we had anticipated. Emma was worn out and moving slowly, although she still didn’t complain. Colin was nearly as exhausted, but better able to disguise it.

I made it to the lake first, dropped my pack, hiked back to Emma, and offered to carry her pack for the last thirty minutes of hiking to the lake. Nothing doing. She made it clear she intended to carry her own pack all the way to the end. Unfortunately, all the nearby campsites at Peeler Lake were taken and we had to hike another half-mile to the far side before finally dropping our packs. But the kids still didn’t complain.

A brief plunge off a cliff into the deep and very cold waters of the lake washed away the misery of the day. After scrumptious handfuls of dusty gorp—which by now had been compressed into bricklike nuggets—Colin and Emma once again helped set up camp, filter water, and cook dinner. We enjoyed the beauty of Crown Peak reflected in Peeler Lake, and checked out its second outlet (Peeler Lake is one of the few lakes that sends water down both the western and eastern slope of the Sierras). I got in some fishing and we watched the dusky, orangey-pink alpenglow suffuse the landscape. Night had fallen by the time we crawled into the tent for much-needed sleep.

In Conclusion — Ultralight Here We Come

This was a fantastic trip! Fabulous scenery, rugged routes, solitude, remote campsites, and great fishing. Please look at the photos of this trip as they say a lot more than anything I can put in words. But with the heavy packs and long days, I think I lost a little credibility with the kids. Our next trip, with ultralight backpacks and a bit less rigorous hiking schedule, will be a 100% winner and should change this. It’s my hope that Colin and Emma will continue to hike in the mountains for years to come. And hopefully their children will hike in the same mountains as well. I feel fortunate that I’m blessed with such wonderful children.

-Adventure Alan

The Start Of My Interest In Lightweight Backpacking

This was a fantastic trip! Fabulous scenery, rugged routes, solitude, remote campsites, and great fishing. Please look at the photos of this trip as they say a lot more than anything I can put in words.
Read text about the trip – Discussion of Weight Savings.  Or browse the photos below.
The brood about seven days in. Colin left, Emma center, AA on right. Yosemite Backcountry – Sawtooth Ridge and Matterhorn Peak in the background. Our heavy packs nearly killed us on this trip.
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Why we go to the mountains. View from Camp morning of day 5. The middle three days of this trip were entirely off trail in some of the remotest areas of Yosemite. We saw no one and it seemed we had the whole Sierras to ourselves.
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Day 6. Our final day of off trail. Colin and Emma hike up Slide Canyon in a seemingly endless valley meadow at 10,000 feet. Although they don’t show in the photo, the meadow was strewn with wildflowers.
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Colin and Emma morning of day 2. We had cooler weather for the trip (50-60’s during the day and below freezing at night). We got a late start the evening before, and stopped hiking just before dark. Nowhere to pitch a tent so we bedded down in the shelter of some low pines and used our packs as a wind break. Heavy winds all night. We could hear the bigger gusts coming up the canyon long before they hit us. Emma was so cold that Colin and I had to sandwich her between us to keep her warm enough to sleep.
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Cold morning – day 2. Colin and Emma just before we started our off trail ascent of the ridge in background. One of dad’s “4 to 5 mile easy days.”
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Day 2 – half way up and preparing to ascend the steeper portions of the ridge.
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Day 2 – finally at the top of the ridge! Emma eyes a very steep decent into Upper McCabe Lake. The kids have promised to bludgeon me if I plan any more trips with “4 to 5 mile easy days” of off trail hiking. They are old enough to figure out that “easy” in dad lingo means “you’ll survive.”
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Colin being attacked by his monster Pack!
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Day 4 – another “4 to 5 mile easy day” of steep off trail hiking. Colin and Emma
taking a rest before descending into Tulula Lake. We saw a pair of skinny dippers from this vantage point but they were gone by the time we arrived at the lake.
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Emma enjoying some warm afternoon sun in our “kitchen,” a rock bluff overlooking the lake.
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Day 5 – our only layover day. Colin resting on an excursion to a very remote high altitude lake. We had a wonderful swim although the water was very cold. The lake’s shore was lined with late season wildflowers in full bloom.
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Day 5. The kids hiking back down to Tulula Lake.
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Day 7 – Colin and Emma climbing up
towards our last pass of the trip.
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Day 7. A brief plunge into the deep and very cold waters of Peeler lake washed away the misery of the day. This was the coldest lake of the trip. I’m guessing the water was not much above 50. We were the only people swimming.
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Day 7. The kids enjoying the last alpenglow of the trip. The pink of Crown Peak reflects in Peeler Lake.
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Pitching the tarps as the winds pickup and the cold front comes rolling through. Notice the windward pullouts in the middle of the 10×10 Oware tarp. Lee edge is raised to for ventilation. The tarps kept us dry and saved a ton of weight vs. conventional tent.

Background

Two years ago (1999) I took a backpacking trip to the Northern Sierra with my son (16) and daughter (11). The Sierras were beautiful but our packs were heavy and our feet and backs sore. Hiking was long and tedious. Even with an early start, we seldom got into camp with much time to do anything at the end of the day. Needless to say, the kid’s favorite day was our layover day in the middle of the trip. This was the beginning of my interest in lightweight backpacking.

This year was the summer before my son, Colin, went off to college. As a sendoff we decided to retake our Sierra trip with my brother and my 10-year-old nephew a fathers and sons trip. The challenge for me was to see if I could get pack weights down to a minimum while trying to meet the diverse attitudes and interests of four people ranging in age from 10 to 40.

A Comparison of Heavy and Ultralight Backpacking

1999 Trip 55 Pound Packs Photos
2001 Trip 25 Pound Packs Photos
Savings 30 Pounds

Link: Highlights of the major weight savings
Link: Detailed Table of Weight Savings from 1999 to 2001.

2001 Trip Report

In the end Colin and I managed to reduce our pack weights by 30 pounds each. This included cameras, fishing gear and carrying some extra food for my brother and 10-year-old nephew. Our base pack weight was below 10 pounds. My brother and nephew carried very light packs as well.

Just about everything on the trip worked as planned. We completed each days hiking with plenty of time to swim, fish and hang out. There were no blistered feet, sore shoulders or aching backs. The mood was generally cheerful. No problems with any piece of equipment.

Colin said he was more comfortable on this trip than the 1999 trip. Just as warm. Better food. Easier hiking without a heavy pack fighting him, especially going downhill and cross-country. He really liked the shorter hiking days. One thing he mentioned about going ultralight is that he had to be more aware of what he was doing with his clothing, sleeping system and shelter. That is, to achieve the same level of comfort with less equipment, he needed more knowledge both about his equipment and backpacking technique, but also a higher level of awareness of weather and trail conditions. He also noted that on very cold nights there was little clothing left to put in a stuff sack to make a pillow.

Logistics…

saved us one day of food and started the trip right.

We stayed locally the night before the trip. This put us at trailhead early the first day, feeling chipper and raring to go. This and lighter packs allowed us to easily travel in the fist day some difficult cross country that took us two days on the previous trip. We arrived in camp with plenty of time to fish the evening hatch. It saved us a day’s worth of food as well.

Every other trip I’’ve taken has started at 4 AM with a long drive to the Sierras, getting a permit and bear cans, frantic packing of the food etc. Tired and cranky we’’d be lucky to get to trail head with enough time to stagger down the trail a few miles before dusk. Starting like this puts a trip, quite literally, off on a the wrong foot. I don’t think I will do it again if I can help it. Nothing like starting fresh and positive with a big lodge breakfast in your belly!

My Favorite Moment

Mid-trip, we woke the morning after a cold front had come through. A hard frost covered everything. Don’t remember who, but someone had the silly idea to take a dip. Temperature was still below freezing but we all plunged into the lake. Kevin and I took 10 minutes to swim across and back. We walked back into camp in just our shoes and sunned dry while cooking breakfast. It took another hour
for the frost to melt off our tarps.

What Ultralight Didn’’t Solve…

the usual trail squabbles.

Going into this hike, I naively thought that ultralight would turn this trip into one long idyllic camaraderie fest. We did have a great time and enjoyed each other’s company. And I know the reduced stress of lighter packs and getting into camp early certainly helped to minimize conflicts. But…..

But in retrospect it was unrealistic to assume that everybody would get along all of the time. Given four personalities, four interests, and four ideas of how to hike, there probably isn’t a complete solution to this. Colin hates to suffer, Kevin loves to fish and holds to a loose concept of schedule, Silvio is only 10 and needs to visit every snowfield, and yours truly likes to hold to a schedule get into camp early. I think we did a great job getting along 97% of the time.

For Next Trip…

people first.

For next trip I’ll focus a more on people and personalities. I think I’ve got the equipment stuff well under control but people are never easy. I have a feeling that 20 years from now I’ll still be learning. For the next trip I’m going to slow down a bit and listen more. A good belt of scotch in the evening wouldn’’t have hurt either.

-Alan

 

This trip marked the demise of my beloved Olympus XA rangefinder camera. Many of the pictures on this page are soft. I have since replaced the XA with a new camera, an Olympus 3.3 Megapixel C-3000 Zoom. Not as light or easy to use as the old rangefinder, but the digital camera makes loading up photos on to a web page a lot easier. With a 128 Mb of SmartMedia, I can take over 170 3.3 MP pictures. 2015 Note: my how things have changed in the digital world!
Kevin fishing the evening hatch at a remote back country lake.
Traveling ultralight on some smooooth granite: Kevin, Colin and Silvio.
Trekking poles make kicking steps a breeze on a late season snow field
The brothers at the summit. I always love a picture with a glacier in it.
On top of the world, or at least our part of it. From left to right, Kevin, Silvio, and Adventure Alan.
On our way down. Easy walking along a granite ridge
Camp mid-trip. The clouds are the very beginning of a huge cold front blowing through.Notice the neat two tarp pitch using two trekking poles and a stick (far left). We never got rain but had a very hard frost overnight. This was the morning that we went for the very early, very frosty swim.
Father and son enjoying a very cold water but what a bathtub!
Some of the weight savers on the trip. From L to R, Barricade Food Can, less food (inside the can), light plastic cup, SnowPeak Giga stove with homemade heat shield and windscreen, Primus 450 g fuel canister, titanium cup, 1.9 L ti pot, 2.5 L Platypus reservoir.
The hike out on the last day. Last big mountain lake <sigh>. Colin, AA, and Silvio in a communal hug. Next stop the ice cream stand at the Tourist Lake From Hell (TLFH). At the TLFH Kevin went on a 20 minute rant about power boats, SUV’s, summer homes, and mass consumer culture. Can’t blame him. It’s such a shock to the system after 7 days in the high country.
Colin strolling into camp. We got done hiking by 1 or 2 in the afternoon most days.
Enjoying the last bit of alpenglow glow and staying warm my a 8 oz Cirrus vest and 8 oz Montane Sirocco Smock. We saved over 5 lb. per person on clothing this trip. We were never cold.
Colin and Silvio heading back to lunch after filtering water.
Kevin running a streamer through a deep pool. As usual he’s hoping to entice a large trout.
Kevin leaning against his rod case and looking very philosophical. Not! I guarantee you that he is intently looking at the obvious drop off for large cruising trout. The aluminum rod case served double duty as Kevin’s walking staff for the trip.
Pitching the tarps as the winds pickup and the cold front comes rolling through. Notice the windward pullouts in the middle of the 10×10 Oware tarp. Lee edge is raised to for ventilation.
Adventure Alan enjoying a mid-trip layover day and fishing his heart out. This lake held some very, VERY nice fish. Put that streamer over the drop off and strip, strip, strip…. BANG!
Colin had a touch of trail sickness mid-trip. I got up, gave him two ibuprofen, and threw my bag over his. You can see he is warm and resting peacefully. Who wouldn’t the both a Marmot Hydrogen and Western Mountaineering Ultralight sleeping bag over you. Note the Photon light, Swiss Army Classic knife, and small whistle all on a lanyard by his head. The kid knows the drill!
Kevin making a long cast on a windy day. High altitude lakes are often difficult to fish in the middle of the day because of they are unprotected from strong afternoon winds.
In fine spirits and winding our way up to a rocky “pass.”
Kevin and Silvio skirting a small lake as we navigate our way cross country. Kevin was disappointed that this lake held no fish. Nice weed population though, and probably a good breeding habitat for the endangered Yosemite Toad.
Father and son getting ready for steep cross country descent.
It’s a delight traveling across large granite slabs.
Colin in a pensive moment at the end of the day.
A cheerful conversation over the morning’s tea.
A very windy afternoon. My hair is blowing straight back. I need the Montane shell to stay warm.
A refreshing swim after a hot 2,500 foot climb.
Silvio doing what the likes most, going to every snow field I had to walk him across a big moraine to get to this one.
Silvio and Colin hanging out after dinner. This was a deep canyon and quickly got dark. You can still see alpenglow on the peak at the end of the canyon.
Silvio having a sunny breakfast on a warm rock. The drying clothes are Kevin’s. He took an unexpected and fully clothed plunge into the nearby stream. As usual, concentrating a bit too much on the fish and not his feet!
Alpine meadow and stream meanders.
A drying lake. Lots of great tadpoles. And lots of fresh bear prints in the mud.
Too cute for words. Kevin and Silvio sharing a cup of tea.
The End!

 

Alison and I took our first trip together to Scotland in 2003. Since then we’ve been on many trips in the US and around the world but, we’ve always wanted to return to Scotland. This year we invited my father and his wife, Judith, to enjoy the best hill walking (hiking) in the world.

Photographs (except as noted) taken by Alan with an Olympus e520 digital SLR and Zuiko 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens.

Scotland captured our hearts. Here a sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch
Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. Wester Ross was our favorite hill walking locale.

In the foreground is a small side ridge of Beinn Eigh. In the background and completely enveloped in clouds, is the main summit
ridge of Beinn Eigh.

Wester Ross

Isle of Skye: Looking down the vast landslip of the Trotternish Peninsula. The Storr 719 m (2385 ft), the highest point in
Trotternish is the furthest peak in the distance.

Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mòr

Alison summitting Stob na Doire of Buachaille Etive Mòr. The mountain is a five mile ridge with four distinct summits. Our loop walk
covered all four of the summits. The highest summit, Stob Dearg 1022 m (3352 ft), is reddish in the background.

Traversing the ridge towards Stob na Doire.

Together on the summit of Stob na Doire. Stob na Bròige in the extreme upper left is the other Munro summit of Buachaille Etive Mòr.

Hiking out along Lairig Gartain.

Judith and Alison ready to pop in for soup and dinner. The Clachaig Inn in Glencoe is a popular place for
hill walkers to warm up, dry out and re-fuel after a long day in the mountains.

It rained hard all night but in the morning the storm clouds cleared out of the Glen — a good sign for the day’s walk up the Lost Valley.

Richard, Judith and Alison, hiking along the terminal moraine just before dropping into the basin of the Lost Valley.

Richard and Judith stayed to enjoy the valley floor. Alison and Alan headed up to the mist covered ridge at the end of the valley.

Enjoying a quick lunch and a great view of the Lost Valley just before entering the mist.

A parting shot of Glencoe. [Photo, Alison]

Isle of Skye

This August was the wettest on record for Scotland. The moderate rain and generally good hiking conditions in Glencoe were a blessing. For the rest of the trip in Skye and “Wester Ross” we had considerably more rain and mist. We averaged less than an hour of sunshine a day and had no more cloud free Munroes.

The Trip to Skye

The requisite picture of Eilean Donan Castle. It is the most photographed castle in Scotland.

A small stream along Glen Shiel.

Hill Walking in the Cullins of Skye

The weather was so bad in Cullin hills of Skye that we have no pictures of our hill walking there. Cloud level was never higher than 300 meters. Many times mists swirled at ground level. We had less than 30 meter visibility on the ridges and navigated exclusively by GPS to summits and back down. Our most difficult climb was Sgurr nan Gillean 964 m (3162 ft) with hard rain and complete white out. We saw nobody on route from the time we left the Sligachan Inn.

The Storr on Skye – Trotternish Peninsula

We arrived at the Storr late in the day. As the pinnacles came into view a storm blew in and all the walkers scurried away. We were left alone to enjoy a wet, misty and very windy Sanctuary and Old Man of Storr. You can just make out Richard (purple blip), Judith (yellow blip) and Alison (yellow blip) above the small outcrop in the right foreground.

Walking down from the Sanctuary — The Inner Sound and Isle of Raasay in the distance.

The Quiraing – Trotternish Peninsula

The Quiraing 543 m (2385 ft), a huge landslip on the Trotternish Peninsula. “The prison” is in the middle background. We were fortunate with mostly clear but blustery weather.

Struggling to stay upright in a stiff wind.

If you look hard across the Sound of Raasay you can see Wester Ross and the hills of Torridon, our next hill walking destination.

A stone crofters fence extending to cliffs edge.

Wester Ross – Torridon Hills and Shiedaig

 

Wester Ross was our favorite walking area. Wilder and less populated than Glencoe or Skye, it has impressive glens and summits in every direction. Liathach, Beinn Eigh, Beinn Alligin, and Beinn Dearg are just a few famous mountains. It would take months and months of hill walking to do Wester Ross justice. Sheildaig is a lovely little town and home of our favorite B&B on the trip, the Aurora.

Looking north from the base of Beinn Eigh. This impressive horizontal line of clouds covered all Munroe summits for the day.

Alison on the Horns of Alligin in Torridon. These were typical Munroe conditions in Wester Ross.
Like the Cuillin Hills we had rain and less than 30 meter visibility on the ridges. We navigated
exclusively by GPS to summits and back down. [Picture taken with Olympus Stylus 830 camera.]

A small side summit of Beinn Eigh breaks out of the clouds. The main summit ridge of the mountain is in the background and completely enveloped in clouds.

On the top of the Applecross Peninsula en route to Loch Torridon and Sheildaig. [Photo, Richard]

The Gang

 

Judith, Richard, Alison and Alan on Rannoch Moor as dusk settles in. Stob Dearg, the highest peak of Buachaille Etive Mòr,
rises in the background.